The first wagon train leaves for California

Wagon train

In 1840 John Bidwell, a 20 year-old schoolteacher in Weston, Missouri met Antoine Robidoux, a French fur trader who raved about the distant territory of California. Bidwell was so moved that he pledged to leave for California the next spring. On May 19, 1841 sixty people crossed the Missouri River to the Kansas prairie and began the long trek west. While under the command of John Bartleson they were actually led by the noted mountain man Thomas ‘Broken Hand’ Fitzpatrick, the former head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company who, with Jedediah Smith, had discovered the South Pass across the Continental Divide.

Western Kansas, Albert Bierstadt

They followed the Platte River to the Laramie Mountains then, at Soda Springs in Idaho, turned southwest through the Wasatch Mountains. West of the Great Salt Lake they entered the Great Salt Desert and suffered mightily from lack of food and water. On September 16 they abandoned the wagons with all their possessions and struggled for eight more days before reaching the Humboldt River in northern Nevada. The long-suffering emigrants followed the river west only to have it disappear into the sands of the Humboldt sink. Finally on October 14 they camped on the West Fork of the Walker River just east of the Sierra Nevada. It still took two more weeks of hard travel before they made it across the mountains to the San Joaquin Valley.

The Great Salt Desert, Utah

In California Mariano Vallejo jailed 14 of the emigrants, including Bidwell, in a dispute over passports but in the end all were allowed to stay. Bidwell immediately left for John Sutter’s fort where he was hired, first to oversee the dismantling of Fort Ross along the coast, and then as Sutter’s bookkeeper and manager. When James Marshall found gold at the sawmill, Bidwell knew about it the day Sutter did. Soon afterwards Bidwell went prospecting.


  1. How old was Fitzpatrick? I recall reading somewhere that the first wagon train was led by an 80 year old man. Or was that someone else?

    • Steve, I don’t know how old Fitzpatrick was but 80 sounds far fetched. Remember this was the first wagon train destined for California but wagons had been going to the Oregon Territory for a while. Often these early trains were made up of extended families and the term leader can be confusing. The elder of the family would be their leader but they would usually hire someone who knew the way, i.e. a mountain man, to guide and lead the train.

  2. John, yeah, you’re right. Broken Hand would have been age 42.
    He died of pneumonia at the ripe old age of 55. Wish I knew where I got the 80 idea from. Wishful thinking, maybe; )


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